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Ukrainian Baptists since 2014

 

A Partisan Exit from the Cheese Dome

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Ukrainian Baptists since 2014

The following piece was written for a colleciton of artcles being published in book form by Prof. Erich Geldbach of Magdeburg. It repeats a number of points I had already attempted to make in previous articles.

 

G v a r d e y s k – Russian-born Mikhail Cherenkov (also “Mykhailo Cherenkoff”), a leading theologian among Ukrainian Baptists, is among those calling for the development of a “modern” and open Ukrainian Protestant movement. Upholding the US-model, this evangelical movement intends to distance itself from the moldy, cuddily and sectarian church subculture of the Soviet era and leap into the wider public arena. The cares of the public must also become the cares of Protestants; one no longer intends to remain aloof from political affairs. The church should be future-oriented, innovative and Western in orientation (see for ex. Zurich’s “Religion und Gesellschaft in Ost und West”, issue 2/2015). This exit from the cheese dome is nevertheless highly partisan, for it sides wholeheartedly with the political and military stance of the current Kiev regime.

 

Cherenkov and Director Sergey Rakhuba are leading voices behind the Wheaton/IL-based „Mission Eurasia“. Rakhuba immigrated to the USA from Eastern Ukraine. Cherenkov resides in Irpen near Kiev, but will be spending several years working for this mission near Chicago beginning in July 2018.

 

Without counting the costs within the Two-Thirds World, Mission Eurasia and the Baptist church leadership in Kiev champion the worldview of the political West. Kiev’s central Baptist offices complained during the summer of 2014: “Our brothers in Russia have given Putin more credence than us.” The same is also true in the opposite direction: The Ukrainians have given more credence to Victoria Nuland and US-Senator John McCain than to their relatives and “brethren” next door.

 

Valery Antoniuk, President of the “All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, defended the violent coup in February 2014 by citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s borderline justification for the murder of a tyrant (Hitler): “Obedience to tyrants is equal to disobedience towards God”. In their church offices and social media, Russians are expected to bring forth a new Dietrich Bonhoeffer who courageously takes up the fight against Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

 

Traditional, non-political Baptists have criticised the Baptist elder and lay preacher Oleksander Turchynov for serving as the country’s acting president from February until June 2014. Yet Antoniuk defended him that year: „When Martin Luther King held his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (in 1963), not all American Christians applauded him. . . . Only in retrospect, after the passing of time, did they realise that it was the Lord who had been leading him.

 

One can conclude that Amsterdam’s “European Baptist Federation” (EBF) has supported the Ukrainian Union’s geo-strategic transition. A hearing for European Baptists in London’s Lambeth Palace on 28 April 2015 sounded more like a manifestation for solidarity than for peace. A centrepiece of the event involved Yuri Sipko (President of the Russian Baptist Union 2002-10) and Mikhail Panochko joining hands to pray for the people of Ukraine. Panochko is Senior Bishop of the “All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian Churches – Pentecostals”. Yet in responding to a call for peace, Panochko assured that reconciliation in the midst of war was akin to “mending the roof of a house in the middle of a hurricane. Reconciliation only begins when the fire has been put out.” Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukrainian Minister for Security and Defence, is not the only Baptist who also appeals for holding out until a final military victory is achieved. In London, Anatoly Kalyuzhny, the once-Baptist chairman of the “Union of Independent Evangelical Churches of Ukraine”, lambasted the politics of Putin as “the works of the Anti-Christ”.

 

The Radicalness of the Kiev Position

According to reports from insiders, the meeting of primarily Pentecostal leaders from Russia and Ukraine in Jerusalem on 10 April 2014 failed because of a demand from the Ukrainian side. It was stated then that only if all sides agreed on Russia being the sole aggressor could negotiations begin in earnest. A consensus was to be reached on a primary issue for discussion – the interpretation of the developments on Maidan – ahead-of-time as a prerequisite for the start of proceedings.

 

The British historian Richard Sakwa reports on two major strategies involving Ukrainian society: According to him, the “monist” view, which is propagated most vehemently in Western Ukraine, defines the country as an “autochthonous cultural and political unity”. The country must “strengthen the Ukrainian language, repudiate the Czarist and Soviet imperial legacies, reduce the political weight of Russian speakers and move the country away from Russia towards ‘Europe’.”

 

The alternative “pluralist” view “emphasizes the different historical and cultural experiences of Ukraine’s various regions”. Building a modern, democratic post-Soviet state “requires an acceptance of bilingualism, mutual tolerance of different traditions and devolution of power to the regions”. (This is essentially the position of the Russian government.) 

 

Already in the 1990’s, the Protestants of Ukraine had accepted the monist position. In a letter from 3 July 2012 addressed to President Yanukovich, nine denominations protested against all proposals to introduce Russian as a second official language in some regions. The signatories included the Baptist Union and two Pentecostal denominations. According to this letter, bilingualism “deepens social division, strengthens political division and undermines the foundations of the Ukrainian state”. It is not difficult to imagine the response to such a letter in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Russia is of course the only language which virtually all Ukrainian citizens master. This letter illustrates the co-responsibility of Ukrainian Protestants for the division of their multi-ethnic country.

 

Ukraine’s “United” or Greek-Catholic Church, which has been in existence since 1596, is among the victors of the Maidan movement. Readily verifiable is the fact that it was involved in the Holocaust and in the liquidation of Poles in Galicia during WW II. This is only one of several reasons for its radical persecution by the USSR. Since early in the 1990’s, this church has been seen as a close ally of Ukraine’s Protestants. They regard themselves as allies in the struggle against an all-powerful Moscow Patriarchy.

 

Today’s Ukraine sees itself in the tradition of its anti-Soviet, fascistoid and fascist movements. Oleksandr Turchynov is regarded as a commander of the far-right Azov Battalion. The Baptist deputy Pavel Unguryan of Odessa accepted a prestigious medal from Ukraine’s Parliamentary President Andriy Parubiy on 21 March 2017. In 1991 Parubiy had founded together with Oleh Tyahnybok the extremist “Socialist-National Party of Ukraine”. On 4 October 2018, a top-level delegation including the presidents and general-secretaries of both the EBF and the Baptist World Alliance as well as Ukrainian Baptist leadership paid an official visit to Parubiy in his Kiev office. Andriy Parubiy is Ukraine’s most prominent fascist politician; his highly-suspect role during the armed battles on Maidan in February 2014 remains in the dark.

 

Yet those Protestants allied with Kiev recognise no fascist danger in their country. One leader of Ukraine’s Baptist Union assured the author in Kiev on 2 April 2015: “The only genuine fascist is Vladimir Putin.” Cherenkov believes that only Kiev is leading a consequent struggle on both fronts - against both communism and fascism. The Israeli state supports a different view. Despite major geopolitical differences, Israel and Russia remain united in their struggle against those East European forces morally compromised by participation in the Holocaust.

 

Dissidents who view the conflict in Eastern Ukraine as a civil war should reckon with shunning and ostracism by Kiev’s Baptist Union. The author can cite concrete cases. According to the perspective of Kiev, the struggle in Eastern Ukraine may only be described as “Russian aggression”.

 

On the front in Mariupol, Pentecostal pastor and orphanage head Gennady Mokhnenko participates in the armed struggle against the Eastern neighbour. This frequent visitor of the USA publicly celebrated the death of the 500th “Separatist” fighter and expressed on TV his readiness to personally liquidate Vladimir Putin. On 5 May 2018, Mikhail Cherenkov published on Facebook a photo of two of his daughters armed and in battle gear. Both can hardly be more than 10 years old. Similar statements have not been made by Baptists residing on Russian soil.

 

The Russian Protestant Position

The US-Mennonite and lecturer Harley Wagler, who has lived in Nizhny Novgorod/Russia since 1994, describes the difference between Ukrainian and Russian Baptists as a theological one. He wrote in 2015: “Many Russian evangelicals are now being pilloried by the Ukrainian ones, who say they are 'stooges' of Putin. But the difference is theological. The Russians, generally speaking, say the church should honour the government, even if it is imperfect, since the church represents another kingdom. Even in the worst Stalin years, Baptist leaders never directly criticized the government, simply asserting that they followed a higher calling. One should recall the Baptist Alyosha in Solzhenitsyn's 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'.”

In Ukraine however, many evangelicals have taken the opposite position. They now say they must support the new government, that this is their patriotic duty. Even the president of Ukraine, for several months, was a Baptist lay minister (Turchynov). He has gained notoriety as the 'bloody pastor' because of his thundering and militaristic, anti-Russian pronouncements. Which position is closer to the Biblical one?”

Two resolutions released by the "Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists" (RUECB) on 30 May 2014 at its every-fourth-year congress (“synod”) in St. Petersburg led to a storm of protest from Kiev. The first letter questioned the morality of the Maidan uprising: “We proclaim commitment to Biblical teaching rejecting the violent overthrow of legitimate authority, nationalism, and the resolution of socio-political differences through means other than political negotiation.”

 

Antoniuk responded by accusing the Russian Union of having written its statements of 30 May under duress. “I have the impression that these were not completely genuine document(s). Somebody simply wanted to have those. I cannot agree with a number of highly-controversial statements. It is necessary to pray for those who show poor judgement.”

 

In an interview published on 17 March 2015, Aleksey Smirnov, then President of the Russian Union, assured that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine had caused intolerable pain within Baptist circles. Like a knife, it had “severed family and civil relations while forcing everyone to make most difficult choices”. The conflict had “divided married couples, churches and the brotherhood as a whole”. Suddenly, people have become “involved in heated political debates . . . and are willing to declare a holy crusade against those who think otherwise”. The Gospel hasn’t changed in 2.000 years, he assured. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself.”

 

Without mentioning Maidan by name, the President defended his Union’s statement from 30 May 2014. In no instance should believers incite violence against one of the parties in a conflict. Christ “never called for war against anyone”. He never appealed for violence against the corrupt Roman occupier.

 

Rev. Smirnov described the war in Ukraine as “not our war” - that no war exists between the Christian fraternities of Russia and Ukraine. He insisted: “We may judge and assess issues differently, but it does not stop us from being brothers in Christ.” The President pointed repeatedly to the subjectivity of political discourse and quoted an old Russian saying: “Each person possesses his own truths (pravda), but only God possesses ultimate truth (istina).”

 

Before the end of hostilities on Maidan in February 2014, Vyacheslav Nesteruk, at that time President of the Ukraine’s Baptist Union, had assured that this was not “our war”. Following Maidan, the author asked Baptist leadership in Kiew more than once whether the current conflict was “their war”. They refrained from voicing approval for Nesteruk’s earlier statement.

 

The Ukrainian Union was not present at the most recent Baptist “synod” in Moscow at the end of March 2018. Yet in a letter they appealed to the Russians to apologise for their statement at the previous Petersburg synod. Former RUECB-president Yuri Sipko therefore proposed that the assembly distance itself from its four-year-old statement. It was instead resolved that Moscow leadership pay Union leadership in Kiev a visit. This then took place on 24 and 25 April 2018. Since an unofficial moratorium has been in place on Protestant leadership discussions between Ukraine and Russia since late 2014, the meeting can be regarded as a breakthrough.

 

According to the Ukrainian release afterward, the Russians called - as usual - for a reopening of ties and broad co-operation. The Ukrainian side for its part called for “an objective and truthful covering of events”. The statement’s attack on “zombification”, “hybridism” and “post-truth” is aimed clearly at those harbouring sympathy for the Russian cause. Ukrainian Baptists continue to regard themselves as the victims of aggression – yet Baptists further east see the Maidan revolt as the initial aggression.

 

Commentary

It is by no means self-evident that centralistic and „monist“ state structures are more Christian than federalist and pluralistic ones – see for ex. the status of Chechnya within the Russian Federation. The usual preference of Protestants for the West’s political system is also no demand of the Gospel. Since the globe consists of more than just a West, this should have consequences for church theology and politics. Regard for ex. the demographic statistics of China and India coupled with the land mass of Russia. A strictly West-oriented policy does not reflect global reality. In conclusion: The churches of Ukraine have committed themselves to political interpretations which cannot be readily deduced from the Gospel.

 

And how should Kiev’s Baptists approach the millions on Ukrainian turf who insist on speaking Russian and regard themselves as one subdivision of a united Russian people – see the term “Rus”? Ukraine’s eastern border is no ethnic demarcation and can be traced to the rule of Vladimir Lenin. Even today, Russian Protestants in the neighbouring region of Rostov-on-Don barely accept the concept that Eastern Ukraine is a foreign entity. Historically, the region east of the river Dnepr has only occasionally professed loyalty to a Ukrainian nation. Only an ethnic cleansing could “solve” the problem on monist terms.

 

Essentially, the secession of Donbass and Crimea also has its bright side for the adherents of Kiev. The loss of these votes has ended the “eternal” see-saw between pro-Russian and pro-Western majorities. In contrast to earlier times, pro-Russian forces can now be perennially outvoted. The Kremlin therefore also recognises value in a reintegration of Eastern Ukrainian into the Kiev-run state. Until 2014, revolving majorities – sometimes pro-Russian, sometimes pro-Western – had retained the internally-divided country in one piece. That remains the case today in Rump-Moldova (without Transnistria).

 

Let us Christians as a bare minimum agree that the war in Donbass can only be resolved at the negotiating table. Then we will all have the same, very helpful starting position.

 

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Gvardeysk, 17 September 2018

 

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #18-10, 2.384 words.